Imagine you are a farmer (maybe you are one) or that you own a nice garden (maybe you do).
Every so often some 4x4 enthusiasts decide to live it out on your farm or garden.
Convoys of four or five vehicles set out to “explore” your farm or garden. Where the existing track is bad, they drive next to the track to get a smoother ride – right through your flowers. And sometimes, some leave the track because they want to go where no vehicle went before.
If you were the farmer or owner of the garden, would you stop this?
But what happens in areas, where there is no one to stop them?
The Privilege and Tragedy of Namibia’s Vast Open Spaces
We are very privileged in Namibia. We can pack a 4x4 vehicle and venture out into remote wilderness, be it Damaraland, or the beaches of our Skeleton Coast. Miners, prospectors, farmers, tour groups, anglers, outdoor enthusiasts, from Namibia and abroad, have been driving in the vast open spaces for decades.
The evidence of this is easy to see:
The Namib does not forget easily. Some of these tracks might be 50 years old or older; many are new. But whether old or new, the scars will still be there when our great-great-grandchildren go out there.
There are ox wagon tracks in the Namib that were made in the 1890s. They still look as if the last wagon might have passed last year.
Tracks in the Namib Become Nasty Scars Forever
Every farmer and gardener can tell you that vehicle tracks destroy the grazing of a farm and the flower beds of a garden. The same is true for the wide open spaces of the Namib. But the Namib is more sensitive than most areas further inland. And it is teeming with small, almost invisible (wild-) life.
That is why in the Namib, the scarring is much more severe than elsewhere.
And recovery takes much, much longer: The desert soil needs 2000 years or more to recover from being driven over (1).
A vehicle weighing several tons
• destroys the top soil,
• compacts the ground and
• destroys the fragile (invisible) plant and lichen cover
As a consequence, the ground gets exposed and blown away by the wind. Rain water cannot enter the ground and runs off. Plants cannot germinate and regrow in the hard, dry ground (1). Then, the living desert becomes a lifeless desert. And the pristine beauty is gone for those who come later.
And this is not only true for the plains and dunes of the Namib, it also concerns the beaches. Did you know that “off-road vehicle use is arguably one of the most environmentally damaging human activities undertaken on sandy beaches worldwide” (2)?
The (Almost) Invisible Life of the Namib Desert
The desert’s inhabitants are small, almost invisible.
Few people would drive through a flower bed. But if there’s only sand to be seen, what is there to destroy? A lot.
Lichens are a symbiosis between fungi and algae. They can survive in the most extreme environments like the Namib Desert or the Arctic. But lichens do not survive being driven over.
Lichens cover the plains of the Namib almost like a tiny forest. For the ignorant visitor, they are invisible.
Lichens are mini-hotels, -restaurants and waterholes for beetles, spiders, termites, moths, etc – even springbok feed on them. But most importantly, they hold on to the soil and prevent erosion.
The rugged and drab dollar bush, or the pencil bush, may not please every human eye. But they are important for the inhabitants of the Namib: from silver fish to chameleons, they all need these bushes for survival.
The desert is alive with lizards, spiders, beetles, birds and more. Adults and kids alike are totally amazed when a guide shows them a sidewinder snake (Bitis peringuey) hidden in the desert sand or a chameleon looking like a rock next to a rock. Life in the desert is not obvious because survival in such an open environment also depends on how invisible you are.
Incredibly, people have been using the dry expanses of the Namib for millennia. They have left traces everywhere, difficult to see and mostly undiscovered. An off-road excursion can destroy the evidence forever.
Webfooted Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
The web-footed gecko spends the day in a shallow burrow in the sand and only comes out at night. The borrows are almost invisible. By driving over the gecko gets killed or the sand compacted, so that the gecko cannot come out again.
Let’s Keep our Wide Open Spaces Pristine
There is no easy solution to the tragedy of the commons. Nobody wants to prohibit people from experiencing nature and Namibia’s wide open spaces off-road.
But what can be done to keep these open spaces pristine?
The entire Namibian coast is protected through the adjoining Skeleton Coast, Dorob, Namib-Naukluft and Tsau //Khaeb (Sperrgebiet) National Parks. Off-road driving is illegal there and can be fined. But it is difficult to police an area as vast as the Namib.
Should we put up signposts everywhere? Fences? Zone our wilderness into Go and No-Go areas?
Surely, very few people destroy the fragile desert life on purpose. Most of the severe damage is caused because the main off-road track is badly corrugated. When the existing track is bad and the African massage gets too painful, the temptation to escape the torture and get a smooth ride next to the existing track is high. But please resist it.
Others will follow on the new track, it will become wider and wider. And over time, the new track will also become corrugated. There are tracks in Damaraland and Kaokoveld that are 100 metres wide, or more! It is an eyesore and a terrible destruction.
Corrugation of dirt tracks is caused by driving fast, with hard tyres.
Almost no corrugation is caused at a speed of 40 km/h or less.
Deflate your tyres, cruise and keep the track smooth!
Corrugation of dirt tracks is caused by driving fast, with hard tyres. Far less corrugation is caused at a speed of 40 km/h or less. Therefore, it is best to deflate tyres, cruise and keep the track smooth!
Off-roading is not for Sissies
Off-roading is not for Sissies. Stay on the track, even if it is bad. And when the road ahead gets rough, remove your dentures, tighten the bra straps and enjoy the ride.
Another issue are shortcuts. A lot of off-road damage is caused by vehicles not taking the established track but making shortcuts, e. g. to angling spots. The area north of Cape Cross is especially affected by this. Countless tracks cut off from the main road towards the beach quite indiscriminately. Many hobby anglers seem to want to loose no time in getting to their favourite angling spot. Instead of taking the main track a short cut is ploughed through the gravel plains and bushes along the beach.
Take only the established track and avoid destruction.
Off-road tracks north of Cape Cross
Stay on track and enjoy Namibia’s pristine open spaces
Let’s all help to create awareness and to establish a culture of care and respect for nature and the environment. We are all part of communities. And within these communities we can help to spread the seeds of awareness, care and respect.
Share this article with your friends and fellow adventurers. Help us create awareness.
Stay on track and enjoy Namibia’s pristine vast open spaces.
1. Seely, M. and Pallet, J. (2008) Namib, Secrets of a desert undiscovered. Venture Publications. Windhoek, Namibia.
2. Davies R, Speldewinde, P. C. and Stewart, B. A., 2016. Low level off-road vehicle (ORV) traffic negatively impacts macroinvertebrate assemblages at sandy beaches in south-western Australia, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/srep24899